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Lebanon News

Mikati, Bassil firm on rival power plans

Energy Minister Gibran Bassil speaks during a press conference in Rabieh, Lebanon, Tuesday, March 27, 2012. (The Daily Star/Charbel Nakhoul)

BEIRUT: Both Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Energy Minister Gibran Bassil stood firm Tuesday on their conflicting proposals to improve power supply, raising fears of a confrontation and possibly a vote on the electricity issue during Wednesday’s Cabinet session.Hopes for reaching an agreement on a solution to the electricity crisis ahead of the Cabinet session were dashed Tuesday when Bassil lambasted Mikati’s plan, countering with his proposal to lease two electricity-generating ships, and predicted dire consequences if his proposal is rejected in favor of the prime minister’s.

Bassil, one of 10 ministers representing MP Michel Aoun’s parliamentary Change and Reform bloc in Mikati’s 30-member Cabinet, signaled that a vote was likely in the event ministers failed to agree on one of the two proposals.

“I see no reason for not reaching a consensus. But if no consensus is reached, nothing will prevent us [ministers] from voting,” Bassil told a news conference at Aoun’s residence in Rabieh after attending the bloc’s weekly meeting.

“The government must make a decision. It cannot disassociate itself from the electricity problem and the people’s problems,” he said. “We need the [power-generating] ships at any time of the year. The problem is not only in the summer.”

Should a vote take place, the majority is on the Aoun camp’s side and Mikati’s proposal would be defeated. Aoun’s 10 ministers are backed by ministers from Hezbollah, the Amal Movement, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and Finance Minister Mohammad Safadi, who has publicly supported Bassil’s plan for leasing electricity-generating ships.

Bassil, who had previously warned that the country could suffer severe electricity rationing of almost 12 hours a day if his plan wasn’t approved, said the country’s demand in the summer was expected to rise to 3,000 megawatts per day. Energy production currently stands at below 1,500 MW per day.

Sources close to Mikati said they did not see an escalation in Bassil’s tone. The sources said matters were heading toward “a compromise” in the dispute between the prime minister and the energy minister over a mechanism to boost electricity supply.

But sources in Aoun’s bloc warned against postponing Cabinet action on the electricity crisis during Wednesday’s session. The two proposals can’t be forged into a compromise – either one or both of the plans are adopted, the sources told The Daily Star.

They predicted that an escalation in political stances would result if the issue is postponed.

According to the sources, meetings were to be held Tuesday night among ministers from Aoun’s bloc, Hezbollah and Amal to hammer out a joint strategy for facing the possibility of the Cabinet rejecting Bassil’s proposal or postponing discussion of the electricity problem. As an escalatory tactic, the sources did not rule out the possibility of Aoun’s ministers withdrawing from the Cabinet session unless Bassil’s electricity proposal is discussed.

Mikati has expressed reservations about Bassil’s proposal for leasing two power-generating ships, which have a capacity of close to 300 MW, arguing that the cost of renting these ships is too high. The claim has been denied by Bassil’s camp.

Mikati is expected to present a report to Wednesday’s Cabinet session containing an offer from a foreign company to build a power-generating plant within a year at a cost less than the leasing of electricity-generating ships proposed by Bassil’s plan.

Bassil said Mikati’s proposal lacked “seriousness and professionalism” and contained “fatal mistakes.”

“There are 10 fundamental mistakes in the [Mikati’s] report ... I wished he [Mikati] had disassociated himself from such fatal mistakes, which contradict the opinions of his consultants,” Bassil said.In his report, Mikati outlines what he considers flaws in Bassil’s proposal. He says leasing ships is a short-term plan since it would only produce additional energy for five years, while building new power plants, using the same money, would produce energy for at least 25 years. Mikati has proposed opening up bidding to companies willing to build power plants that would provide 500 MW to 1,000 MW per day and also rehabilitate three power plants.

Bassil defended his proposal to lease two electricity-generating ships, saying it could save $130 million for the treasury. He stressed that the ships were part of a larger plan that included rehabilitating power plants and building new ones aimed at producing 700 MW per day.

Bassil said the power-generating ship proposal had already received Cabinet approval as part of his global plan to revamp the electricity sector, and warned of the consequences should his proposal be rejected by the Cabinet.

“Someone must shoulder responsibility, the prime minister or the president,” he said, adding: “There will be more electricity cuts and we are heading for a disaster that is growing every day. We are talking about 12-hour rationing this summer.”

Bassil said he supported the leasing of power-generating ships along with the building of power plants. He said that leasing the ships would cost the treasury an additional $180 million, but would save the Lebanese $400 million otherwise spent on backup generators.

Bassil said Aoun’s ministers would resign if the government remained unproductive. “We shouldn’t take it for granted that the government won’t resign. Do you think we’ll remain in an unproductive government?” he asked.

Meanwhile, President Michel Sleiman met separately with the interior, energy, health, environment and social affairs ministers as well as the deputy premier at Baabda Palace as part of efforts to reach a consensus on the electricity proposals on the eve of the Cabinet’s session. Sleiman underlined the significance of dealing technically and scientifically with the electricity issue, taking into account the interest of the citizens and the state.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 28, 2012, on page 1.

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